In many countries currently muddling their way through oppressive rates of obesity, political figures are obligated to make commanding statements (sometimes with equally commanding hand gestures) about their commitment to the wellbeing of the population. After they make these statements, they may or may not trot out the CEO of a company like PepsiCo or Nestle to announce, with a grimace, their innovative new 20-year plan to cut sugar by 10 percent in such-and-such product. India, however, is refreshingly free from such formalities, and its politicians heartily admit that, far from working to combat obesity, they are actively courting the increased participation of soda and junk food companies in India’s economy.
The Junk Food Tour
At the end of last year, the Indian government held a symposium aimed at getting the makers of sugary junk foods to increase the sale of their products in the Indian market. In preparation for this, Indian officials traveled across the European Union and the United States promoting the financial opportunities offered by their growing middle class to the executives of brands like Coke, Pepsi, and Hershey.
According to India’s Minister of Food Processing Industries Harsimrat Kaur Badal, the flood of processed food in the Indian diet isn’t necessarily unhealthy, and obesity only affects a “very small, elite percentage of Indians”: “Obesity is not an issue that is number one on our priorities. Number one is to ensure an ample amount of healthy, safe, nutritious food for everybody.”1
A Case of Denial
Malnutrition is indeed a very real crisis in India, but Badal’s logic embodies diversion tactics at their most cynical. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, some 199 million Indians are overweight or obese, a number that has tripled since the 1990s as the Western diet of processed foods has taken hold around the world—the same processed foods, lest we forget, that Badal is trying so desperately to attract more of. These are hardly the “healthy, safe, nutritious” foods she pretends to advocate.
“If you had asked me 15 years ago,” says Barry Popkin, researcher at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, “I would have said India needs all the help it can get getting food into the country.” Now, he says, “there’s a double burden of over- and undernourishment.”
A Long Fight for Little to Nothing
A report in the New York Times at the end of last year described the public interest lawsuit filed in 2010 by Rahul Verma, a man with no legal training, to end the unregulated sale and marketing of junk food, sugary drinks, and the like. While his case set off a political firestorm of sorts that forced a begrudging government to pass some meager guidelines, the most significant and effective proposals that experts have been desperately advocating for years have come to nothing in the face of these legal battles against the All India Food Processors Association, among whose hundreds of members Coca-Cola India and PepsiCo India are perhaps the most notable.2
While 199 million is a frighteningly large number, in reality, it is less than one-sixth of the population. This is a fraction that pales in comparison to countries like Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. where more than half the population is overweight or obese. Many of the countries now cracking down on sugar appear to be doing so because they’ve reached a similar tipping point. Let’s hope India’s 1.3 billion people don’t have to wait that long.
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